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Crimes of the Cape Fear: Mother convicted of homicide by child abuse after 4-year-old disappears

Updated: May. 27, 2021 at 3:53 PM EDT
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WHITEVILLE, N.C. (WECT) - Nearly 20 years after her disappearance, Kynande Bennett has yet to be found. The 4-year-old South Carolina girl was reported missing by her parents Sept. 29, 2002. They said she’d been kidnapped from the Whiteville K-Mart. But investigators assigned to the case quickly became suspicious that something was very wrong with her parents’ story.

Within hours of Kynande’s reported disappearance, search crews were scouring the property around K-Mart on Highway 701 in Whiteville. But there were no signs of Kynande, and store employees said they thought her mother, Vartasha McCullough White, was alone when she walked into the store. According to the FBI file recently released to WECT, the employee who made the 911 call said McCullough reported Kynande missing to K-Mart staff, but did not want them to call the police.

Vartasha and Kynande lived together in Conway, SC. Shortly before Kynande’s disappearance, Vartasha had rekindled a romance with Kynande’s biological father, Kevin Bennett. They had allegedly come to Whiteville on Sept. 29 to visit Kevin’s brother, and Vartasha claimed she had taken Kynande to K-Mart to get snacks. But detectives noted there was no car seat in the truck where her parents said Kynande was sitting, or any other child paraphernalia, except for a matchbox car they found wedged under the seat. The more investigators looked into the case, the more they doubted Kynande had ever come to North Carolina at all.

Signs of abuse

The FBI file notes that a witness told authorities she had seen Kynande with bruises on her face and shoulder two days before she disappeared. When that witness asked the child about her injuries, Kynande told her, ‘My mommy did it.’ The witness then confronted Kynande’s mother, Vartasha, who allegedly replied, ‘I’m going to whip her ass for telling you.’”

Other witness interviews mention strap marks and cuts on Kynande’s body in the days leading up to her disappearance.

No one other than her parents saw the young child after Sept. 27. Her grandparents were worried about her, and had contacted the Conway Police Department with those concerns on Sept. 29, around the same time the child was reported missing.

“They had not seen the child in over a week and had learned through others that the child had recently been seen with bruises. They stated they had driven over to their daughter’s [Vartasha’s] apartment on Sunday, Sept. 29, at approximately 10:00 a.m., to confront their daughter. When they arrived at the apartment, they could hear someone moving around inside the apartment; however, no one answered the door,” the investigative report read.

Evidence of a crime

Shortly before midnight the day Kynande was reported missing, authorities searched the apartment. Investigators noticed an overwhelming chemical odor, and saw three bottles of bleach, alongside a damp mop and towels. McCullough explained that she was preparing for a Housing Authority inspection, and had been thoroughly cleaning the apartment, but detectives worried she’d actually been trying to cover up a crime scene.

Despite the clean-up effort, authorities found evidence of Kynande’s DNA in the rooms that had been cleaned “that would suggest that a physical assault had taken place,” according to an affidavit connected to search warrants for the apartment.

Authorities were also concerned the parents were not making any effort to preserve their daughter’s belongings while the search to find her was still well underway.

“One of our investigators noticed that they had actually taken most all of the toys and most of the child’s clothing and had thrown it away,” former South Carolina Deputy Solicitor Bert von Herrmann said. “It was clear they knew Kynande Bennett was not coming home.”

Monica Caison, director of the CUE Center for Missing Persons, helped lead the search for Kynande and also noticed concerning behavior from the family. As she does for families of the lost, Caison put Kynande’s parents up in a hotel, and offered to buy them dinner in the early hours of the search. Casion said in that situation, most families are too worried to eat, but Kynande’s parents feasted on a fish fry.

“I remember standing in the woods [where they were searching] thinking, ‘That’s not right. That’s not normal in the first few days of a missing child,’” Caison recalled of hearing about their dinner order from a volunteer who’d gone to get the food. When discussing Kynande with the family, Caison was also concerned to hear them talk about their daughter as if she was no longer alive.

“I pay attention when people talk in past tense. When we don’t even know what’s happened to this child yet but you know you’re referring to this child in past tense,” Caison explained.

Failed polygraph test

About a week after her disappearance, Conway Police officially named Kynande’s parents as suspects in the case. Her mother had failed a lie detector test about her daughter’s disappearance, and her father refused to take one.

The FBI file indicates that White nearly confessed after learning she’d failed the test:

“White began crying when one of the agents stated, ‘We both know that whatever happened to that child did not happen in North Carolina, it happened in that apartment, didn’t it?’ White nodded her head affirmatively. The agent then stated that White needed to take them to wherever the child’s body was, to which White said, ‘I can’t.’ She then regained her composure and again stated her daughter had been taken from the K-Mart.”

Homicide by Child Abuse

After searching for Kynande for several months without success, Conway Police arrested her parents for Homicide by Child Abuse. They had no body, but did have probable cause to believe Kynande was dead, and that her parents were involved in her death.

“We went into this thing as a missing child. We wanted to find the child, we wanted to take care of the child. It only later on branched out into a criminal investigation when we started putting some pieces together,” von Herrmann said.

von Herrmann still questions the police’s decision to arrest the parents when they did. He thinks they would have been more likely to implicate themselves, or lead investigators to Kynande’s body, if left alone for a little while longer. Police arrested the parents in hopes of getting them to confess to the crime, but that never happened.

Despite the legal challenges, prosecutors were able to convince a jury that Vartasha McCullough White killed her daughter. It was the first time in South Carolina history that a case went to trial for a child’s murder without a body. White was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and is scheduled to be released in January 2023.

“I am shocked, quite frankly, that out of all these years, she hasn’t told what happened [to Kynande]. It’s just unusual to me,” von Herrmann said of White’s continued silence.

While they believed that both parents were involved in Kynande’s death, prosecutors had a stronger case against Vartasha. Legally, von Herrmann said they felt they had a better chance of securing a conviction against her if they were not also trying Kevin Bennett as her co-defendent. They made the calculated decision to drop the charges against Bennett, but von Herrmann said if they ever find Kynande’s body, authorities could still bring murder charges against him.

We are her family

While nearly two decades have passed since her disappearance, those involved in the search for Kynande, and bringing her mother to justice, still think about the case.

“I’ve always kept a place for Kynande in my heart because the small child vanished, and even nowadays when a small child vanishes, everybody in the world wants to help. And people didn’t really want to help [in Kynande’s case]. We had to bring our own searchers and, we had to bring our people from other states and other communities that were part of our organization to come in because the local people just weren’t interested. They were mad at the mother, but they took it out on the child,” Caison said of the uphill battle they had getting volunteers to search for her. “I’m thinking no matter who killed her, she has a right to be found and I couldn’t believe people were so heartless.”

Caison said she hasn’t given up hope that Kynande may one day be found and receive a proper Christian burial.

“I just feel like we are her family. Like, I just feel like the investigators, the prosecutors, the law enforcement that worked the case and the volunteers who searched for her, I just feel like that’s her family. And that, you know, it’s just sad,” Caison added.

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